Hundreds of thousands of families are needed to provide foster care for nearly a half-million children and teenagers who for their own safety cannot continue to live at home.
Some of those families are found in Baptist churches, and those who recruit and train them want to find more.
For many decades, when at-risk children needed to be removed from home for their protection, they were welcomed into group homes and residential campuses established—often by Baptists—to care for children orphaned by wars and disease. Government policies, social welfare changes and budget woes have combined to make such residential services a placement of last resort.
So, those century-old institutions are combing their supporting congregations for families they can enlist and train to provide foster care in their homes.
Becky Alley, director of marketing and communications for the Children's Home Society of North Carolina, said they look "for people who are concerned about the welfare of children, who want to be a safe haven in a time of crisis, who will have them prepared and ready to return to their birth family when their birth family is safe and functioning again."
Foster parenting "is a calling" according to Andrea Walker, intake coordinator for Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina.
"If someone is in it just for a financial stipend, forget it," Walker said. "We're selective. We want to get good quality folks who are going to be in for the long haul."
Keith Henry, executive vice president for programs and services at Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina, said he's seen newspaper ads that offer "a little extra money" as an attraction to become foster care parents.
While the stipend for foster parenting is about $600 monthly, depending on a child's age and behavior level, Henry said his agency "wants to attract families who see this is a ministry, not as a way to earn extra money. We feel going through the churches provides us a built-in filter."
Henry values foster care as a part of his institutions's continuum of services, "but we don't feel it's the answer to every child."
Foster parenting often leads to adoption, and about one-fourth of the children in the foster care system are eligible and waiting to be adopted.
The median age of children in foster care is 9.7 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Most are in care for about a year, but 17 percent are in care for three years or more.
Stacey Darbee, head of the North Carolina Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, also is a foster and adoptive parent.
She and her husband, Osvaldo Franco, built their retirement home and were preparing for an empty nest when they felt clearly and suddenly called to start foster parenting.
They have adopted two sets of siblings, although the younger siblings were not yet born when they adopted the older ones. Their mothers continued their irresponsible behavior, and Darbee knew they needed to adopt the younger babies when they were born.
Myra Griffie, chief operations officer for Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, said the level of need in children being placed in foster care has increased dramatically in the past two years, as states close facilities dedicated to serving people with mental health and behavioral problems.
There is a distinct and growing need for parents "who can handle children with more severe behavioral patterns," Griffie said.
"With mental health reform, we've had children with very intense needs coming into our program."
Henry said "such children are being pushed into family foster care because of cost," citing the $4,000 monthly cost of a typical residential program, and the approximately $600 cost of foster care.
Plus, county departments of social services often can tap federal dollars for certain types of services.
"You don't have to be a hero or someone special to be a foster parent or to adopt," Darbee said.
"You can be a plain-old person and just have enough room in your heart to do it."
She encourages individuals considering foster care to look deeply inside themselves and to make sure their family and support structures outside the family are in place and supportive.
"You're going to need those people," she said. "You can't do it as an island. …You need that village around you."
Despite the difficulties, she said, "I would not trade my life right now for anything."